After five years, the world has not heeded the lesson of the gilets jaunes on the connection between class and climate, according to Oliver Haynes.
The movement was initiated by a petition started by Priscillia Ludosky, a soft-spoken small business owner from French-Martinique, in May 2018. Ludosky had appealed for lower petrol prices at the pumps through Change.org. The petition gained momentum and caught the attention of Eric Drouet, a truck driver. Collaboratively, they organized a demonstration against the introduction of a carbon tax on petrol the following year (this happened shortly after Emmanuel Macron had reduced taxes for the wealthy). The call was eventually heeded by hundreds of thousands of individuals from both urban and rural areas in France. This marked the beginning of the yellow vests movement.
The participants of this movement are currently celebrating its fifth anniversary. It has served to politicize many individuals in France, bringing them together in anger towards the “president of the wealthy”. I distinctly remember the first protest in Troyes, located in the Champagne region where I was residing at the time. I was taken aback by the intense frustration and anger displayed by individuals as they banged on the gates of the town hall while wearing their hi-vis jackets. This was a result of their daily struggles in post-2008 France, where average disposable incomes had decreased over the course of several years. While French protests are typically lively, journalist John Lichfield noted that the gilets jaunes’ “white-hot anger” was something entirely new and unprecedented. To everyone’s surprise, Macron also appeared taken aback by the movement. He ultimately abandoned the tax after just over three weeks of protests, causing shock and disbelief among the French political community.
After five years, what lessons can be drawn? The main takeaway is that Macron’s fuel tax was a prime example of what not to do when creating climate policies. However, many European politicians continue to make the same mistake of burdening working and lower-middle-class citizens with the responsibility of reducing carbon emissions, only to face pushback and criticism later on.
According to geographer Matthew Huber’s 2022 publication, “Climate Change as Class War,” the majority of policy decisions in the US and other comparable nations are made by a relatively uniform group of professionals who view climate policy as a way to incorporate the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions into the market by placing financial burdens on consumers of fossil fuels. However, Huber suggests that this approach overlooks issues of power and the unequal distribution of consequences.
This is evident in the implementation of the Ulez levy by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, to reduce air pollution. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has extended the levy, which was met with opposition from residents of Uxbridge, located on the outskirts of the Ulez boundary. They believe it unfairly places the burden of pollution costs on ordinary people during a time when living expenses are already high. The rightwing media played a role in fueling anti-Ulez sentiment, and though there was a program to partially cover the cost of replacing cars, the high cost of living remains a key motivator for political action. In France, the gilets jaunes movement vandalized a large number of fixed speed cameras in protest against what they saw as a means of exploiting low-income individuals. In London, a group known as the “blade runners” have targeted the number-plate recognition cameras used to enforce the Ulez.
The yellow vests were a large movement that had widespread support from the public. The group known as the blade runners, on the other hand, was a smaller and more marginalized group. However, the implementation of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in post-austerity Britain demonstrated that taxes aimed at promoting environmentalism can be seen as arbitrary punishments rather than necessary measures for the public good. This is especially true for those living on the outskirts of major cities who rely on cars for transportation and often work as self-employed drivers. The demographic of those opposing the Ulez was not surprising to those familiar with the yellow vests movement. Another important lesson learned is that backlash can have various consequences, such as creating room for political parties to adopt environmentally harmful policies like expanding North Sea oil drilling.
Britain is not the only country failing to learn the lessons of the gilets jaunes movement. In Germany, a law that would have mandated citizens to install costly clean-energy heating systems from January 2024 nearly toppled the German governing coalition, with the Greens’ approval rating plummeting. It was then watered down to allow a longer phase-in time. But even with the promise of grants to cover 70% of the cost of the heat pumps, many people felt they were being asked to pay too much and that the policy was being imposed on them in a one-size-fits-all way. One interviewee, an engineer, told the Financial Times that he wasn’t against heat pumps, but to install one that would work efficiently in his house would have meant taking apart and reconstructing much of the building.
None of this is to say that taking climate action is unnecessary, or too hard, or inherently a form of class war. Nor is it to say that “the people” don’t want to reach net zero. In my reporting from France, I have met gilets jaunes who care deeply about the environment; they just found that, for them, the end of the month was arriving before the end of the world. Ludosky told me recently that she thinks the gilets jaunes have had two main legacies. The first is that French people are more concerned about the poor health of their democracy – since the carbon levy they have campaigned for democratic reform (though this has proven harder to deliver than the tax U-turn). The second legacy is that any talk of the ecological transition is now accompanied by ideas for how to make it fair. In 2021, France’s Green party adopted a resolution that cited the gilets jaunes as evidence that the “fight against inequality and precarity must be at the heart of the ecologist’s project”.
Attention policymakers: If you are looking to address the climate crisis, which we must do, then any proposed solutions should involve democratic input. Additionally, it is important that any actions taken do not unfairly affect the working and lower-middle classes. If policies are implemented from the top down in a regressive manner, you may face backlash from citizens, as seen with the “yellow vest” protests.
In 2021, Oliver Haynes, a freelancer in journalism, received recognition in the Guardian Foundation’s Hugo Young award for his exceptional political opinion writing.
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